Ukrainian University from Within: Anthropological Notes (Part 3, “Ordinary Racism”)

December 2014
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How they study

- So, what do you think about these foreigners?  – asks a colleague in the department.

- Everything’s good, they’re smart, we get along. – I answer.

- Whatever.  Finals will come, and that will put an end to your friendship.  They’ll devour you to get the highest grade.

The above dialogue is extremely instructive: the idea that foreign students put particular pressure on their instructors during exam season has become commonplace.  According to the stories, the methods they use to try to gain influence aren’t characterized by great variety, and they usually repeat the same manipulative strategies: “playing the pity card” and asking for a top grade.  And they don’t make logical arguments for this, but rather apply emotional pressure, telling you about their grieved parents and their poverty.

I started to think about why this happens.  Why do adult men and women from other countries come for higher education at a Ukrainian institution, but prefer to communicate in a style that is reminiscent of a whining child, rather than rationally, between mutually responsible people?  What is the role of intercultural differences in this?  And to what degree is it actually the Ukrainian educational system that renders these strategies the most beneficial?  How does “submission from below” fan the teacher’s ego (and conscious or not particularly conscious feeling of racial superiority) and satisfy the desire to rule the roost, to reign supreme, to “punish or pardon?”

By the way, my exams didn’t go by without tears and pleading, though to a lesser degree than I’d been warned.  As far as I understand it, this strategy really is more productive for foreign students in a racist climate – and it then reproduces and strengthens that racism.  And the insistent retelling of these “horror stories” among the faculty community yet again construes non-white students as immature, unintelligent, irrational – in short, inferior.  Now it’s clear why the upper-year foreign students at my university advise their newly-arrived compatriots to “never fight with your teachers.” For one thing, “submission from below” has more of an effect.  And for another thing, you have no chance of getting justice through honest dialogue, because your position is doubly weak: in addition to the a priori subordinate position of the student, you also belong to a subordinate race.  A double disadvantage.

But the thing that is most interesting is that the foreign students actually like the process of learning itself!  A certain number of them already had a chance to receive a bit of higher education in their homeland, so they can compare fairly competently:

- The educational system in Ukraine is very effective, in comparison to India, and the module-based grading system is really great!  It lowers stress and raises productivity…

- At Ukrainian universities there are a lot of practical skills taught, and that’s very good for my future career…

- I like that Ukrainian teachers know a lot and answer all our questions…

They place a high value on level of education and are ready to forgive their teachers their (usually) weak English and unfriendly manner of communicating.  At the same time, the teachers who work with foreign students at my university view their charges very critically, even hostilely.  The non-white students are often accused of unacceptable behavior (“they talk in their own language,” “they don’t listen to my remarks”) and of lower mental abilities.  “All blacks are idiots!” I was told gleefully by a progressive young professor with an EU flag on his desk.  “They don’t know really basic things.  I ask them how many bits there are in a byte – and they don’t know!!!”

It’s been known to happen that our teachers praise foreign students for their diligence, talent, persistence, or motivation.  Notably, they formulate this praise in the same racist, othering manner.  As if to say, who would have thought!  Or: what has the world come to, look how far Ukrainian education has fallen, that now foreign students are often smarter than Ukrainian ones.

Gendered specificities of racism, racial specificities of sexism

The gender breakdown of those who come from overseas to study at my university is uneven: about 90% are boys, men.  And it’s not just a matter of the subject (engineering and computer science).  The majority of countries that supply students to my university are more patriarchal than Ukraine.  For example, a female student from India explained what incredible pressure her huge extended family is putting on her parents because they allowed their daughter to travel to the ends of the earth to study instead of keeping her close to home and preparing her for marriage.  Her situation is unusual, because she is the only child of well-educated parents with doctoral degrees; many Indian girls couldn’t even think of going abroad for higher education.

How do the female students at my university feel about this?  Beyond the already mentioned complaints about the dorms and the tricks of the educational process, immediately they bring up the topic of open or veiled condescension, underestimation on account of their gender:

- The older girls say that I should stop studying so hard, because no matter what the teachers will give girls lower grades, regardless of how well they know the material… (a first-year student from India)

- I’m studying engineering and constantly have to prove that I’m not stupid.  The teachers never give grades higher than “satisfactory” and openly say that it’s because we’re girls… (a second-year student from Zimbabwe)

I haven’t done a comparative study, but I presume the faculty’s sexism towards non-white students is greater and more open, more brutal, than towards their Ukrainian counterparts.  The reason for this is skin color.  That is, the general racist notions of the mental inferiority of non-white students critically lower the level of expectations regarding the intellectual capacity of non-white women.  A triple disadvantage.

But there’s one more interesting way in which the gender of foreign students in Ukraine serves as an additional benefit or, conversely, magnifies the social tension, and it’s connected to sexuality.  And that’s the fact that there’s a widespread practice among the male non-white students to try to find a Ukrainian girlfriend.  As a rule, they’re richer men; they invite the Ukrainian women to live with them and offer complete or partial financial support.

If this works, in addition to the typical male benefits (e.g., a woman to do the household tasks and a constant sexual partner), the foreign guys also get a teacher of the local language, an interpreter, and a guide to local customs and quirks, and all of this in one person.  So, essentially they get an extremely valuable assistant – a mediator in the unendingly complicated process of intercultural interaction.

Besides the pragmatic benefits, there is also a symbolic value in this sort of relationship.  One of my black students talks openly about this:

For a black man, to be in a relationship with a white woman is great.  No matter what she’s like in other ways, the very color of her skin immediately raises the social status of her non-white partner.  Whatever they say about the moral aspect of partnerships like this, lots of black men are eager to marry a white woman and take her back to their country as a valuable “trophy.”  In the social hierarchy pyramid, black women are at the very bottom.  Female non-white students in Ukraine have little chance of a relationship with a non-white man (because they want white women) and even less chance of finding a white man (because for him that would mean radical, impermissible social downshifting).  So I don’t envy my black female classmates… (first-year male student from Nigeria)

So it ends up that it’s quite a bit easier for male foreign students to study in Ukraine, because of their gender:

The teachers treat them better; they don’t have to work as hard to get good grades.  Plus they can easily find Ukrainian girls, start living with them, buy them things, pay the rent or give them other financial support.  Meanwhile these Ukrainian-speaking girls help them to solve various problems, fill out documents.  One time the foreign students had a party, it got really loud, and the neighbors called the police.  But the Ukrainian-speaking girlfriends spoke with the policemen, sorted everything out, and the police went away…Well, and sex, of course.  Plus the girls cook… (second-year female student from Zimbabwe)

It goes without saying that these interracial relationships are always in one direction (white woman – non-white man), never the opposite (non-white man – white woman), and the idea of interracial same-sex couples doesn’t even exist in the discourse.  So the concept itself is far from irreproachable, and it can be treated as misogynist and heterosexist.  But at the same time these couples are always the object of open and concentrated racism, whereby each partner bears the brunt of a good share of aggression and hate: the men because they’re “ruining Ukrainian girls,” the women for betraying their nation.  This rhetoric is so widespread that my students parrot it sincerely.


I am still teaching and, when I get the chance, talking with foreign students about life, recording interviews; and all the while I marvel at this extraordinary experience.  I have the feeling that racism – both traditional and modern – is continuing undisturbed, and even flourishing, at Ukrainian universities.  But I suspect that the problem isn’t (only) individual prejudice on the part of faculty or administrators.  Racism is inherent to the ideological construction of Ukrainian universities: neoliberal in form, but post-Soviet, opaque, and corrupt in practice.  Racism is an organic component of education, where the declared principle of “equal rights and opportunities” is laughably empty.  Furthermore, the nationally-specific realities of education, and later the workplace, divide the students according to multi-level hierarchical structures, where their individual capabilities or dedication to studying have little influence on the ultimate outcome.

I’m bothered by the lack of a theoretical conceptualization of the problem of racism in Ukraine, as well as the lack of open societal discussions on this topic (especially in the field of education).  Maybe my anthropological explorations will finally kick this conversation off?


My students talk about the lack of honest human respect towards them on the part of the university; they feel neglected and disrespected.  How typical is this – are there universities in Ukraine with a different attitude towards foreign students?  This piqued my interest, and I immediately found a shining example online: yes, somewhere there’s concern for foreigners, especially for their spirituality.  What follows isn’t a made-up joke, but a real news report from February 5, 2014, recounted word-for-word from the original.  It seems extremely fitting as a postscript…

“A group of first-year Indian students at Luhansk State Medical University visited the Church of the Tenderness of Mary (Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate), where they learned about the traditions of Orthodoxy.” This headline appeared on the official site of the university.

“A new aspect of the work of the department of foreign languages is the spiritual education of foreign students and familiarizing them with sacred culture.  The first-year students visited the Church of the Tenderness of Mary.  They met with the priest Oleksandr, who gave them a tour and told them about the traditions and particularities of Orthodox services.  The students were shown an English-language film about the adoption of Christianity in Kyivan Rus,” the site writes.

“This was the kick-off of the new project ‘Foundations of Orthodoxy for foreign students,’ led by the Intercession Orthodox spiritual education center.  Lessons on Orthodoxy will be held in the recently-constructed church complex on the territory of the regional children’s hospital, dedicated to the icon of the Tenderness of the Mother of God.” 

KRYTYKA is deeply grateful to Kate Younger for her volunteer work in translating this article from Ukrainian.


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